The Challenge and Opportunity of Total Worker Health

Posted May 22, 2013

By Ed Rutkowski and Kay Bechtold

Montreal—L. Casey Chosewood, the Senior Medical Officer for Total Worker Health at NIOSH, told attendees at this morning’s General Session at AIHce 2013 that occupational health needs to encompass more than just workplace risks if America is to reverse several disturbing trends. He encouraged attendees to see this challenge as an opportunity to have an even greater influence on improving workers’ lives than that afforded by traditional industrial hygiene and occupational safety and health interventions, which focus predominantly on the workplace.

Total Worker Health is a NIOSH initiative that promotes a comprehensive approach to occupational health. The goal, Chosewood said, is “to optimize the health of workers so we can have a better, more productive workplace, and change the health of our communities.”

Given the amount of time people spend at work and the changes occurring in the delivery of health care in the United States, Chosewood suggested that industrial hygienists and occupational health and safety professionals are better positioned than any other health professional to have a positive impact on people’s lives. “You are at this amazing intersection of work and health, and I can’t think of a more exciting place to be,” he said. "What happens at work doesn't stay at work, and what happens at home doesn't stay at home.

"There is no better place in our society to effect change than the workplace."
He offered some advice about communicating with workers, encouraging the audience to try to appeal to the human element when discussing sampling data or other health information. Workers won’t listen to rote recitations of data; they need industrial hygienists to relate this information to something in their personal lives.

"When you talk about numbers to the people that you serve every day,” Chosewood told attendees, “I want you to add in a sentence that says, This is important because it will get you home safe every day.”

Throughout his presentation, Chosewood urged his audience to expand their notion of hazards to include what he called “the deadliest threats facing American workers”: too many calories, tobacco use, and lack of physical activity. These three hazards are the leading causes of death in America.

“If your company is to remain economically viable, you must be concerned with” these hazards, Chosewood said. Among the most effective workplace interventions are those that increase workers’ physical activity, such as building parking lots a quarter mile from the office to encourage more walking.

Later on, Chosewood took questions at a special “Ask the Expert” session in which he stepped off the stage to field inquiries about sit-stand work stations, the aging work force, dealing with arthritis in the workplace, and more. “I’d like to hear about your interventions as well,” he said, and many in the audience stepped up to the microphone to share their experiences with the successes or struggles related to health and safety interventions within their own work environments. When asked to speak to strategies for implementing successful interventions to help with total wellness, Chosewood stressed the importance of knowing what motivates and interests your work force. “Ask folks what they need and what they want,” he said.

Chosewood shared a few interventions that have been successful at CDC, such as a community garden and a group strength training class. When asked whether NIOSH had a mechanism for sharing others’ interventions and success stories, the answer was yes: a newer feature of Total Worker Health called “Promising Practices” features examples of steps that employers across the U.S. are taking to integrate health promotion and protection into their workplaces. “It’s more powerful when we hear from individual companies,” he said.

Ed Rutkowski is AIHA's managing editor, Periodicals, and editor in chief of The Synergist.

Kay Bechtold is editorial assistant for The Synergist.